Neck Muscle Pain
Neck muscle pain usually involves the levator scapulae muscles, scalene, sternocleidomastoid, splenius, or trapezius muscles. These muscular pains can be a result of overuse, tension, nutrient deficiency, aberrant circulation, and problems with the nerves. Mobility problems and referred pain can be caused, with headaches, jaw pain, arm, shoulder, and ear pain all possible. Vuillerme (2009) also noted that neck muscle pain can cause problems with balance.
Whiplash and other Trauma
Motor vehicle collisions, falls, and contact sports injuries can all cause serious trauma to the neck area resulting in muscle pains. Muscles themselves may be torn or strained which leads to inflammation and pain. The proper use of protective equipment, head rests, and daily neck strengthening exercises can help prevent or minimize potential repercussions from such occurrences.
Tension and Stress
Anxiety and stress can lead to involuntary tensing of the muscles, which can cause muscular cramps, spasms, and fatigue. Neck muscle pain often occurs in tandem with headaches when the cause is stress, and may be exacerbated by sudden movements, and heavy lifting. Magnesium is an important mineral required by the body for muscles to relax after contracting. If magnesium levels are low then muscles are more liable to cramp up; additionally, magnesium is commonly known as the ‘stress mineral’ as a deficiency may lead to an increased propensity towards anxiety and tension.
Draughts and Awkward Posture
A common trigger for neck muscle pain is incorrect posture, whether whilst awake or asleep. Sleeping or sitting for a long time in a draught can also cause muscle pain in the neck as the cold causes the muscles to contract, resulting in fatigue. Many people find that altering their seating position at their work-desk helps alleviate neck muscle pain. Employing an ergonomist to assess the work set-up may be beneficial if the sufferer is unable to establish the problem themselves.
Walking in uncomfortable shoes may also cause neck muscle pain. These can be excessively high or very flat, unsupportive, shoes. Carrying bags one handed, or always on a particular arm may cause uneven muscle tone development and resultant pain. Rucksacks can help distribute the weight more centrally, with the lifting work done by the core muscles rather than those neck muscles that are already under strain.
Over-training and Sports Injuries
Lifting heavy weights in the gym without proper warm-up can lead to neck muscle pain, as well as arm and shoulder pain. This may be felt as acute pain upon carrying out the lift, or later as the muscle attempts to repair itself. Contact sports also carry a risk of trauma to the neck muscles, such as brachial plexus injury, fractures, and inflammation. Proper safety equipment, protective padding, and thorough rest between exercise can minimize these risks.
Except for specific cases, where fracture, or serious muscular injury has occurred, it is generally a good idea to keep the muscles working and mobile. This allows the body to remain supple and to ensure healthy circulation to the muscles in the neck. Injuries such as whiplash may require the use of a cervical collar for a short period whilst the joints and muscles heal. Keeping the collar in place for too long, however, may become detrimental to the long-term health of the neck which can lead to muscle atrophy (hover for explanation) with disuse.
Anderson (2008) found that exercise specific to the painful muscle had a more pronounced effect in reducing neck muscle pain than general exercise for fitness; regular exercise still showed a significant reduction in acute neck pain however.
Treatments for Neck Muscle Pain
If the neck muscle pain is caused by tension then simple relaxation techniques may prove beneficial, such as a long soak in the bath with relaxing lavender oil, a flotation tank session, or simply a good night’s sleep. Therapeutic neck massage with essential oils that help increase circulation (such as rosemary) and relaxation (such as lavender) can also help unwind the knots in the neck muscles.
Where injury has occurred to the neck it is important to have a thorough assessment of the damage and discuss options with a healthcare professional. Sometimes rest is all that is needed for the body to repair itself. On other occasions anti-inflammatory medications, both NSAIDs and natural remedies, alongside analgesics may be helpful to the patient. On rare occasions neck surgery may be necessary to stitch damaged muscle tissue, or correct a structural problem that is impacting on the muscles in the neck.
Engaging in strengthening exercises for both the neck and the core muscles is recommended for everyone, particularly those who have suffered neck muscle pain previously. Activities such as yoga and pilates are excellent for relaxation as well as facilitating correct posture and muscular strength. Products such as neck pain pillows may also help to reduce neck muscle pain.
Andersen, L.L., Kjaer, M., Søgaard, K., Hansen, L., Kryger, A.I., Sjøgaard, G., (2008), Effect of two contrasting types of physical exercise on chronic neck muscle pain, Arthritis Rheum, Vol.15, No.59, (1), pp.84-91.
Vuillerme, N., Pinsault, N., (2009), Experimental neck muscle pain impairs standing balance in humans, Exp Brain Res, Vol.192, No.4, pp.723-9. PMID: 19034441
Last Updated: 9/10/2010